The Shadow Cipher (York: Book 1) by Laura Ruby

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  In an alternate New York City, three seventh graders rush to solve a century-old puzzle that they hope will save their home.  When the unique building they live in is bought by an uncaring billionaire, twins Theo and Tess and their friend Jaime decide to try to solve the Cipher.  Created by the Morningstarr twins in the nineteenth century, the Cipher has baffled people for years, including the twins’ grandfather, now suffering from dementia.  When the kids discover a letter sent to their grandfather that appears to be from one of the Morningstarrs, they think they have stumbled upon a new version of the Cipher that may lead to its solution and the treasure that awaits the solver.  Rushing from one adventure to the next, the reader learns about some of the steampunk-inspired inventions of the Morningstarrs that are part of daily life in this version of NYC.  Although the kids discover important clues, the case of the Cipher is still not cracked by the end, and a cliffhanger will leave readers anxiously awaiting book 2.  496 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of Rick Riordan will eagerly consume this tale featuring three gifted, quirky protagonists, an intriguing mystery, and plenty of adventure.

Cons:  The kids seemed to solve the extremely difficult puzzles with remarkable ease…although at least some of that may be part of the mystery.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Published by Sterling Children’s Books

Summary:  Aven has always believed she can do whatever she wants, and being born without arms hasn’t stopped her from playing guitar, excelling at soccer, and making plenty of friends at her Kansas middle school.  But when her parents suddenly decide to take over Stagecoach Pass, a has-been theme park in Arizona, Arlen has to start eighth grade in a new school.  Unable to face the stares of her new classmates, she takes to eating her lunch in the library, where she meets Connor, a boy with Tourette’s syndrome and Zion, a boy struggling with weight and self-esteem issues.  The three become friends, and uncover a mystery at Stagecoach Pass involving tarantulas, a locked desk, and a mysterious girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to Arlen.  In the process of solving the mystery, the kids also have to acknowledge their own limitations and learn to reach out and help each other reach their full potential.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Arlen is a confident, hilarious narrator whose fun and supportive parents have taught her to face life head-on and learn to do as much as she can for herself.  The story ends on a realistically uplifting note for all the characters.

Cons:  Zion seemed like a bit of an afterthought.  I would have liked to have known more about him and seen a little growth and change for him.

King and Kayla and the Case of the Secret Code by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers

Published by Peachtree Publishers

Summary:  Anyone who has read Dori Hillestad Butler’s Buddy Files series knows that Buddy started life as King and lived with a girl named Kayla before being sent to the pound.  In this series for younger readers, Kayla and King work together to solve mysteries in their neighborhood.  As readers who are acquainted with Buddy know, King has many favorite foods and can understand humans, but can’t make them understand him.  In this first installment, Kayla and her friend Mason receive almost identical letters in code.  King can sniff out the identity of the sender, but the two kids have to rely on other clues.  They list what they know and what they need to know, and eventually are able to crack the code and solve the case.  48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Beginning readers will enjoy solving mysteries with the irresistible King, then moving on to read about his life as Buddy.  The humorous illustrations and fast pace will keep them engaged.

Cons:  It makes me sad to know that Kayla and King ultimately will be separated.

Wallace and Grace Take the Case by Heather Alexander, illustrated by Laura Zarrin

Published by Bloomsbury

Summary:  Wallace and Grace are two owl friends and partners in the Night Owl Detective Agency.  Wallace is a careful rule-follower, and Grace is an enthusiastic go-getter, but each one appreciates the qualities of the other.  In this first installment, the two friends are hired by Edgar the rabbit to investigate a ghost-sighting in the kale patch.  Carefully gathering and clues and using a bit of logical reasoning, they are able to work together to uncover what’s going on.  Readers can look forward to a couple of sequels, as well as some similar series in Bloomsbury’s Read & Bloom imprint for newly independent readers.  80 pages; grades K-2.

Pros:  A perfect first chapter book, with plenty of colorful illustrations and gentle humor.

Cons:  Wallace comes across as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  12-year-old Matthew almost never leaves the house due to his incapacitating OCD.  Petrified of germs, he spends most of the day in his room, watching his neighbors and taking notes on their comings and goings.  So when a little boy disappears from his grandfather’s front yard, it turns out Matthew was the last person to see him.  He decides he is going to solve the mystery.  Reluctantly at first, he enlists the help of Jake and Melody, two kids from his grade who live in the neighborhood.  As the story unfolds, the reader gradually learns of Matthew’s guilt over his own baby brother’s death, and how this has led him to choose his sterile, lonely existence.  By the end of the book, the case has been solved, Matthew has made a couple of new friends, and he is beginning to take the first steps toward recovery.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A suspenseful mystery, told with understated humor in Matthew’s British voice.  Readers will empathize with Matthew’s seemingly strange behavior, and cheer him on as he starts to uncover the demons that have plagued him for much of his life.

Cons:  I cringed at the scenes where Matthew washed his hands until they cracked and bled.

Into the Lion’s Den (The Devlin Quick Mysteries) by Linda Fairstien

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers 

Summary:  Devlin Quick and her new friend Liza are working on a school project in the map room of the New York City Public Library when Liza sees a man cut a page out of a valuable atlas.  Devlin, whose mom is the NYC police commissioner, immediately goes into action, chasing after the man before snapping a blurry photo of him.  Using this single clue, plus her considerable intelligence, extra-keen sense of hearing, and the help of well-placed family and friends, Devlin and Liza eventually track down the culprit, only to have him lock them underground at the Brooklyn Public Library.   After a heart-pounding escape, the girls, along with their friend and accomplice Booker, are awarded keys to the city and NYC detective badges.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Fans of Nancy Drew will appreciate this first entry in a new series about a smart girl and her two sidekicks.  Like Nancy’s lawyer father Carson Drew, Devlin Quick’s police commissioner mother gives her some sleuthing advantages, but ultimately she must depend on her own brains and quick wits.

Cons:  Devlin occasionally comes off as a bit of an annoying know-it-all.

Click Here to Start by Denis Markell

Published by Delacorte Press 

Summary:  During 12-year-old Ted’s final visit with his somewhat mysterious great uncle, Uncle Ted extracts a promise from young Ted to not give up and keep looking for answers.  Shortly afterward, his great uncle dies, and Ted inherits his apartment and all its contents.  He and his friend Caleb are psyched to dig into the mess, but disappointed when Ted’s father invites his boss’s daughter, Isabel, to join them.  Isabel turns out to be a brain, which is helpful as the three are drawn deeper and deeper into a search for lost treasure.  Ted is an expert an online escape-the-room games, and it turns out his great uncle created a hunt perfectly honed to his skills.  The only problem is there’s at least one bad guy racing to find the same treasure, and it’s hard to tell who he is.  With plot twists on practically every page, the three kids finally end up victorious, with a few ends left loose to pave the way for a sequel.  320 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros: Fast-paced and funny, this is sure to engage reluctant readers with its non-stop action and humorous dialogue.

Cons:  Plan on suspending your disbelief by chapter two and keeping it suspended up until the last page.  The solution to this puzzle is way beyond the capabilities of any mortal mind, and there are a few too many coincidences to be believable.  Don’t think too much…just enjoy the ride.